Spotlight on Alumni – Anind Dey

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Interactive Computing Alumnus Follows Path to Success

In the nine years since Anind Dey left the College of Computing with a Ph.D. in computer science, he has built a foundation for an extraordinary career. Even the National Science Foundation agrees that Dey is off to a great start and showed it recently by giving him a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award. The five-year, $500,000 grant is the agency’s most prestigious award for junior faculty.

After graduating from Computing in 2000, Dey spent four years as a senior researcher at Intel Research Berkeley and an adjunct assistant professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department at the University of California. Since 2004, he has been assistant professor in the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, where he does research on ubiquitous computing—especially intelligent, interactive systems.

The kind of intelligent systems Dey works on are expected to proliferate in coming years, gathering information not only about people’s circumstances and environment but also their preferences. Such systems could help with everything from schedule management and route-planning for road trips to customizing indoor environments according to the occupants’ needs. But they also have the potential to be intrusive or confusing and to make irritating mistakes that could cause human backlash.

Dey’s doctoral research focused on tools to support the building of better applications for ubiquitous computing. Now he’s more concerned with making those applications more intelligible and responsive to users.

“People are much more likely to accept ubiquitous computing and these tools if they can somehow explain their own behavior,” Dey says. “If users don’t understand why something is happening, they are likely to reject it.”

Dey and his students are now working on four intelligent systems of their own: one to help two-career families with children cope with schedule overload; one that records daily experiences and critical information for patients with dementia; one to motivate people to be more physically active and one that learns a person’s driving preferences and recommends compatible routes.

Dey’s interest in ubiquitous computing was sparked during his time here at the College of Computing, and he says he can’t imagine what he would be doing today if it weren’t for the College and his advisor, Professor Gregory Abowd.

“I had the best advisor in the entire world,” Dey says. “I had worked with a couple advisers, but it never really clicked. Then I did a little project with Gregory, and he took me under his wing and asked me to be his Ph.D. student.”

Abowd, who also was the advisor for Dey’s wife, Jennifer Mankoff, will tell you the admiration is mutual.

“His thesis work on the Context Toolkit is one of the most influential pieces of work in the ubiquitous computing research community,” Abowd says. “He has gone on to a very successful career.”

When Dey first came to Georgia Tech, he was enrolled in the doctoral program in aerospace engineering. He had graduated with a bachelor’s of applied science in computer engineering from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, and thought aerospace engineering was for him. A little more than halfway to a master’s degree, he changed his mind.

“Too much defense-related work for a Canadian!” he only half jokes.

As a non-U.S. citizen, Dey often had difficulty getting the necessary security clearance for prime internships and research opportunities. That, combined with his own pacifist tendencies, convinced him that he belonged in another field. At around that time he happened to be working on a project with Ron Arkin, professor in the School of Interactive Computing and an expert on robotics. So he mentioned his quandary to Arkin, who told him to take a look at the College of Computing.

Dey stuck it out long enough to earn his master’s in aerospace engineering, then he discovered a new home in Computing—especially in the GVU Center.

“When I was at the GVU Center, we were all in that one central GVU lab in the College of Computing Building,” he says. “I was working beside people doing all sorts of cutting-edge research about things that were really outside of my realm of knowledge and experience. And they were very collaborative, eager to talk about their work and give me feedback on mine.”

It’s the people in the College that Dey remembers most clearly and most fondly, especially Abowd, whom Dey credits with some of his professional success.

“Gregory instilled in me a really good research discipline,” Dey says. “He made sure before I left that I knew how to write a conference paper, and he let me work with him on writing grant proposals. He did a lot to prepare me and to make me feel that I could succeed as a faculty member.”